At the College World Series, where the dingers actually do go ding, no team has ever hit more homers of more Homeric length than Louisiana State did last week. At the CWS, in which game scores traditionally resemble Senate votes, no team has ever scored as many runs per game as LSU did in winning its first national championship.
"LSU scored a thousand runs in their first three games," Wichita State coach Gene Stephenson estimated before his team lost to the Tigers 6-3 in Saturday's final. At least a thousand.
Or so it seemed before an audit revealed that the Tigers, in fact, produced only 42 runs in winning their first three series games in Omaha's Rosenblatt Stadium—by scores of 8-1, 15-3 and 19-8. Their eight home runs to that point were already just one short of the series record. Rightfielder Lyle Mouton, who launched three of those smart bombs, had done what Chris Jackson, his former partner in the LSU basketball team's starting back-court, never could do, though not for a lack of trying: Mouton hit a 425-foot shot.
"I prefer quantity to quality," said Mouton's roommate, catcher Gary Hymel, who hit four home runs of slightly shorter distances in those first three games. So studly had Hymel been in hitting two homers against Florida on June 5 that when he was drilled in the head by a pitch in that game, he retrieved the missile and politely tossed it underhanded back to the mound on his way to first base.
Why then, with all this heavy-metal being played by the Tigers, was the crowd at Rosenblatt so startled when the team tied a series record with its ninth home run last Saturday, taking Wichita State starter Tyler Green deep in the second inning?
Perhaps it was because the Philadelphia Phillies had made Green the 10th pick overall in the major leagues' amateur draft June 3. Or perhaps it was because, later that draft day, many in this crowd had seen Green strike out 14 of the hometown favorite Creighton's batters, ringing up customer after customer like an express-lane cashier at the A&P.
Or perhaps it was because the Bayou Bengal who hit the two-run dinger on Saturday to give LSU a 4-0 lead, who exchanged unpleasantries with Green while crossing the plate, and who was promptly (and preemptively) plunked on the hip by another pitcher in his next at bat, was the 5'9", 162-pound Armando Rios, who had hit one fewer home run all year than Hymel, the series's Most Outstanding Player, had hit all last week.
"I'm running the bases," recalled Rios, "and [Green] is all mad, and he's looking at me, and the catcher says, 'Just wait until the next time you're up.' I went back to the dugout, and some of our guys told me to watch out, that I was gonna get hit next time up. I said, 'If they do it, I'll be glad. I'll take it for the team. And I'll score.' " Which is precisely what Rios, upon reaching first base after indeed being hit, told Wheatshockers reliever Doug Dreifort he would do. Moments later, he scored—on teammate Rich Cordani's triple.
In this aluminum-abetted game, in which even the Punch-and-Judyest of batters hit Willard Scott's weight, center-fielder Rios's average of .293 was average as averages go. And yet: "They tell me I'm a hot dog," he says. "And I am like that. I'm a Puerto Rican. We're like that."
And now, in a sense, the College World Series is like that too. Long the Billy Barty of major NCAA championships, the 45-year-old CWS is beginning to assert It-self in its own charmingly cheese-ball manner—stepping forth gingerly among the bowl games and the basketball Final Four as a big-time college sports spectacle. Though it is still an exhibition of the latest in rally-cappery and a show of uniformly ugly uniforms—Florida State's gold-and-maroon numbers should be legislated against—the series has become much more than that.